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Outlook: Iraq Policy Failing

Robert G. Kaiser
Associate Editor, The Washington Post
Monday, May 24, 2004; 12:00 PM

The chorus of doubters about the war in Iraq -- including senior military officers, government officials, diplomats and others working in Iraq, commentators, experts and analysts -- is growing. Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor of The Post and a long-time student of foreign affairs, writes in Sunday Outlook that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ignored his own sensible guidelines for when to go to war. Those guidelines, which Rumsfeld sent to President Bush in 2001, called for "clear, well-considered and well-understood goals as to the purpose of the engagement and what would constitute success." Kaiser writes that Rumsfeld had no real strategy for the post-war period and concludes, "The United States gets itself into this kind of trouble when it turns away from that most fundamental of American values: pragmatism."

Kaiser was online Monday, May 24 at Noon ET, to discuss his article, A Foreign Policy, Falling Apart, and why instead of achieving a happy ending in Iraq, the U.S. is now facing a crisis of ever-growing dimensions.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Robert G. Kaiser: Hello and welcome to a discussion of the war on Iraq and my article on U.S. policy there, which ran in yesterday's Outlook Section. There is a link to it at the top of this dicussion. I hope you can all have a chance to read it.

We have an hour for the discussion. I'll try to answer a lot of questions, and post a lot of comments, but I can see already that it won't be possible to get to everyone's postings. I apologize in advance.


Alexandria, Va.: Good piece on Iraq, Mr. Kaiser. My question may sound tangential but I hope you consider it relevant, as you are listed as associate editor of The Post. In the same Outlook section there was a piece by Lehrman and Kristol titled "Crush the Insurgents in Iraq." Its thesis, that a U.S. counterinsurgency war in a Arab/Islamic state somehow resembles either the Battle of Midway or the American Civil War, is so ludicrous a bright eight year old would laugh at it. People like Kristol have been consistently and catastrophically wrong about everything, yet the Post treats him as if he has something to say. The Post gives similar respectful treatment to Charles Krauthammer, whose fulminations on Iraq verge on the demented. Why? To my knowledge, the Post does not publish op-ed pieces by members of the Ku Klux Klan to add "balance" to issues involving race. Thanks for your consideration.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. This is one of many questions that raise the confusing matter of how the news department and the editorial page of The Post relate to each other. The Sunday Outlook Section embodies the complexities of this relationship.

The editorial page, which is responsible for the opinions of The Washington Post, is responsible for its page and the "op-ed" page, where our syndicated columnists appear along with contributions from a rich variety of outsiders. On Sundays, the editorial page also is responsible for "close to Home," which appears on the back page of Outlook. Sunday's op-ed page included the column you refer to by Lehrman and Kristol. It was chosen by editorial-page editors, who did not consult with the Outlook editors about it, as Outlook did not consult with them about my piece.

You could call this anarchy, or , like us, you could call it the separation of church (opinion--them) and state (news and news analysis--us).

So the editorial page editors have no responsibility for my piece, and the news department has no connection to them and their opinions.

Or to Kristol's and Lehrman's.!


Columbia, Md.: Is it wise for U. S. policy in Iraq to include a mandate for setting up a democracy?
Iraq is a country ill-suited for this type of government.

Robert G. Kaiser: Many questions like this. Personally I am torn trying to answer. I do not accept blanket assertions that some kinds of people are just ill-suited to democracy. I think we have seen enough examples, from Taiwan to Peru and beyond, to know that everyone can succeed in creating a democracy. But they can't do it by magic.

Democracy most of all requires institutions that have the respect of the people being governed by them. Creating institutions that have respect simply cannot be done overnight. Nor can a free and informative media be created just like that. Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek has written a wonderful book about the future of democracy that sheds a lot of light on these issues.

I don't think there is much chance of us "setting up a democracy in Iraq" any time soon. But I don't reject it as a totally unrealistic goal. It's just an unrealistic short-term goal.


Woodbridge, Va.: Why is it that Americans expect to change things in such a short period of time? They expect the President to know all and plan all for things that are unknowable and unforeseeable. This is not a Mcdonalds drivethru where the results are predictable, cheap and fast.

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a wonderful question. We have a serious national problem: noattentionspanitis we might call it. This feeds many weaknesses in our political culture. I wish I knew how to substitute longattentionspanitis for it.


Bologna, Italy: You quote from ex-Marine General Zinni regarding his evaluation of the poor rationale for going to war in Iraq. In your opinion, why is it worth listening to him and others who are only now speaking out against the war? Where were they at the time when it mattered to have an opinion expressed publicly against the war? Why did they keep silent then? Were they silenced? Were their opinions not welcomed in the American press in the run-up to the war? Were they too afraid of public outrage if they dared to speak against the President? In other words, why should we give them credit now when their apparent cowardice at the time it mattered helped contribute to the situation that now exists?

washingtonpost.com: Zinni's "10 Crucial Mistakes in Iraq, (Center for Defense Information)

Robert G. Kaiser: Several questions like this which, alas, reveal that you are not all careful readers of every day's Washington Post! I have asked my colleagues to post here a profile of Zinni written by Tom Ricks many months ago, reporting on his very bold and very public critique of the administration's rationale for war in Iraq. Zinni has been consistent and forceful in his position.

We have also linked to the speech he gave at the Center for Defense Information here in Washington on May 14. That's the one I quoted from in my piece yesterday.


washingtonpost.com: For Vietnam Vet Anthony Zinni, Another War on Shaky Territory, (Post, Dec. 23, 2003)


St Brieuc, France: What do you think will be the effect of 'incidents' such as the bombing of Makradheeb in Iraq, particularly given the American response : 41 men, women and children are killed by US marines in another botched operation (see the London Independent) and their commander Major General James Mattis says "I don't have to apologize for the conduct of my men". At what number do the much-vaunted American values of which George Bush boasted recently, start to take effect, and the military admit that they might have made a mistake and apologize for their conduct? 42? 100? 10,000?
Does his (almost) laughable point that 'how many people go to the desert for a wedding' not show the chasm of understanding which exists, and which may have made this war impossible to win even before it began?

Robert G. Kaiser: You're in Brittany on the coast, right? I think I've been there.

We will be trying to pin down the facts about this bombing episode. It is another troubling one, I agree, but I'd like more facts.

On your general point about our ignorance about Iraqi society, it is undeniably true. Just as in Vietnam 40 years ago, we have very few Arabic speakers, very little knowledge of history, very little patience for figuring out a culture radically different than our own. Does that make it impossible for us to "remake" Iraq in our image? I fear it probably does.


Marietta, Ga.: Why do all you naysayer pundits think that you, a handful of retired military officers and a cadre of career politicians, know more about what to do in Iraq than the people fighting the war? War is a dynamic situation, the enemy is not always going to follow our plan the way we'd like them to. It is easy to be an armchair quarterback after the fact. Why can't you critics hold your negativity until after we have won? All you're doing is helping the other side. I realize you don't believe that, which is a big part of the problem. Let the adults do their job and you can write volumes of how much better you would have done it after are brave soldiers are finished with the job and out of harms way. Didn't Vietnam teach you anything? Read Mort Kondacke's column dated 5/21/04. We are fighting for civilization, this is not an academic exercise.

Robert G. Kaiser: First of all I refer you to Gen. Zinni, one of the brightest officers to serve in the U.S. military in a long time, who held the same job that Gen. Franks held during the war, a few years earlier. He knows more about Iraq and the Middle East than all but a handful (if that) of other officers. His opinion is worth a lot more to me personally than the opinions of Washington-based officials who led us into this war without knowing much about the country or the region.

You, sir, are a poor student of American history if you think there is something either new or dangerous about a free press criticizing the conduct of a war while it is going on. This has been the norm since the Revolutionary War. We have always had it, and we have always survived it, and without it, we would not be the United States of America.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for a thought-provoking piece. Of course, it's politically expedient for the administration to insist that we "stay the course," and no one who cares about Iraq wants to see us abandon it now. However, do you get the feeling that the administration realizes they've made grave errors of judgment and need to correct them, or is there a groupthink that allows them to believe that they really did made the best decisions, even though now they've been proven to be wrong (i.e., troop levels, trusting Chalabi, etc., etc. ad nauseam)?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't yet get a clear feeling on this issue. I think tonight's speech by the president will tell us a lot. As I wrote yesterday, I personally believe that any successful maneuvering out of the corner the administration is in today will have to include confessions of past mistakes, and a palpable change of course. Holding some people accountable for mistakes will probably be required as well.

I learned years ago to never say never. This sort of sharp turn in policy is not something we have seen Bush do in more than 3 years. But if his poll numbers continue to sink, he is going to have to do something.

So maybe this series of 6 speeches, beginning tonight, will be the last gasp of the original policy, with alterations to follow? I have no idea.


washingtonpost.com: Join The Post's Peter Slevin Live Online tonight following President Bush's speech.


New Orleans, La.: All of the criticism of the war in Iraq is good "Monday morning quarterbacking" by the guys on the sofa, it makes a good story, but doesn't answer the question of where do we go now? You closing statements imply that we should follow the Vietnam example and withdraw now. What would be the consequences of such a withdrawal on America's image in the Middle East? On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? On al Qaeda's war on America?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. I didn't mean to suggest I thought we should withdraw now. In fact I wrote that "Today we cannot know the consequences of any of the choices we may make in Iraq." That was my next-to-last line. I used the Vietnam comparison to suggest that a time is coming when, as happened then, we will have to acknowledge how wrong our original premises were, and how far this led us astray. Personally I don't consider this a matter of opinion. It doesn't take more than a few minutes of research to see how wrong so many of our leaders were -- in Congress, in the Administration, in the news media -- about a war in Iraq.

I see the pitfalls you see if we try speedily to withdraw. But I also see great costs if we try to stay. We are in a real pickle.

As a young man, I decided to be a reporter, not a government official. This was in some respects a cop out, because reporters get to criticize even when they don't have the answer themselves. I think that's a healthy part of our system, but I can see how it can annoy people like you!


Florence, Ore.: Mr. Kaiser, do you believe the privatization of our defense has contributed to the poor planning of the war in Iraq due to the financial interests of the defense industry?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't know, but I think that, as a country, we need to look a lot harder than we have at the "outsourcing" of functions that traditionally were performed by the armed services and the Department of Defense. I would like to know a lot more about what we've done than I do. The revelations during this war have surprised me.


Arlington, Va.: How deep do you perceive the rift to be between the Pentagon and the military? Between the Pentagon and the CIA? Is this historically unique?


Robert G. Kaiser: This is an important question. Because it comes from Arlington, it could be from the Pentagon, where I know the anxiety level is very high. If you missed it, read Tom Ricks piece from the Sunday front page a week ago on the gloom there. I hope we can put a link to it here...

The armed services, particularly the Army, are hurting. Their future is, in my opinion, at risk. We will be hearing about their problems for a long time to come.


washingtonpost.com: U.S. Faces Growing Fears of Failure, (Post, May 19)


Fort White, Fla.: why didn't our wise men from all parties and walks of life raise their voices 2years ago as it was obvious then and it still is that we are ruled by people of inferior intellect?

Robert G. Kaiser: I disagree, and I have to say it bothers me to see people dismiss officials they disagree with on the grounds that they are stupid. I will not write a dissertation in defense of the intellectual accomplishments of our president, but his team, including Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Armitage, Rice, Hadley and others -- are as bright as any comparable group I have covered in 40 years at The Post. Bright people can do dumb things, as Mr. Rogers might have put it, but writing them off as a bunch of air-heads isn't accurate or helpful to understanding what has happened here.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kaiser, once again I'm getting a feeling of deja vu regarding criticism of the war effort from the media and retired military officers: 2001, Afghanistan is a quamire -- not enough boots on the ground; 2003, the march on Baghdad is bogged down in a quaqone -- supply lines are stretched thin; 2004, the occupation is a failure -- blah, blah, blah.

The media and the armchair generals have been so wrong about so much, including you, Mr. Kaiser, yet they still peddle their swill of defeatism and contempt of President Bush and his administration (except Colin Powell, of course.)

Why should anyone take you and the rest of your ilk seriously? And when will you apologize for your errors in judgment?

Robert G. Kaiser: You may have a long list of them that I've conveniently forgotten, but I'd like to ask you which errors of judgment on my part you are asking about? I do believe in apologizing for mistakes and -- more important, certainly -- in acknowledging them.

But I am not guilty of the sins you enumerate to the best of my recollection (regarding Afghanistan, the march onf Baghdad, etc.)

Our job is to hold powerful people accountable for the way they use their power. That is what I was trying to do with my Outlook piece. I wanted to help our readers understand that this enterprise has gone badly, has not followed the script our leaders wrote for it, and that a grim future awaits us. Is this the "swill of defeatism" you describe? If so, I'll be drinking it for lunch.


Silver Spring, Md.: Thank you the beautiful column in the Outlook. Is Washington Post editorial board going to admit that it was wrong and apologize for its pre-Iraq war position and support?

Robert G. Kaiser: I've addressed this earlier: I cannot speak for the editorial page, which in turn cannot speak for me. I read it every morning without knowing what it may contain, and will continue to do so.


San Carlos, Calif.: Do you think this administration is capable of acknowledging error? It seems that they see saying "We did X wrong, here's how we'll correct it" as unacceptable.

Robert G. Kaiser: This is the big question. It hasn't happened yet, I don't think. If it doesn't happen pretty soon, I would expect President Bush's re-election prospects to continue to erode. But that's a prediction, and I make a lot of bad ones!


London, U.K.: Dear Mr Kaiser,

I would like to ask you whether in 1921, when the British created Iraq was a pragmatic approach or it had led to a jigsaw that only undoing it will resolve today's problem? I think the pre-emption policy of Bush could have worked if it had a well-prepared post war planning implementation. Another question: Do you think that one year is adequate to judge success and failure in Iraq after more than 35 years of tyranny?

Thank you

Robert G. Kaiser: Good questions, thank you for them. Some readers may not know the history to which you refer: The British created Iraq, a country with no previous history as a nation-state, in 1921 and brought together Kurds, Shia and Sunnis under a king they also chose. It worked for a while, but from the beginning the Sunnis were dominant and the other groups were restless. In 1968, if memory serves, Saddam led a Baath party coup against the king, and since then imposed his own form of nationhood on the country.

Whether there can be one Iraq in which all groups are happy to share power and share a country remains, in my view, an open question.

You imply that better planning for the post-war and better implementation of those plans would have solved our problem in Iraq. Perhaps. What-ifs are always tricky.

Is one year enough to judge success or failure? It's enough to say the U.S. is up a creek without a visible paddle, I'd say, but that is not a final judgment, obviously. The crisis will go on and on, in one form or another.


Washington, D.C.: This really is not meant to be a leading or rhetorical question, but have you been to Iraq since the war began?


Robert G. Kaiser: It's a perfectly fair leading AND rhetorical question: I have not. For health reasons I can't make such trips. But I have had the benefit of talking at length with some of our colleagues who have been there, and I have read everything that I could about Iraq.

I am not in any way an expert on Iraq or the Middle East.


Cincinnati, Ohio: Mr. Kaiser:

Thanks for this forum. Why do you think U.S. Policy is failing in Iraq? Do you think this will result in a defeat for President Bush and thegangd around him in Nov 04 elections?


Robert G. Kaiser: I apologize, but please read my Outlook piece , to which there is a link at the top of this discussion.


Silver Spring, Md.: Thanks for a very well written article in Sunday's Post.

In your response to a previous question, you say holding some people accountable for mistakes may be needed. Do you believe that a Rumsfeld dismissal, or a Bush refusal to seek reelection (similar to Lyndon Johnson in 1968) would be necessary to regain America's standing in the world and allow us to salvage something positive from our involvement in Iraq? What will it take for our allies (France, Germany) to agree to an international peacekeeping force?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

These are good but unanswerable questions. "What would it take..." is always a risky formulation, don't you think? I think it is pretty elemental inter-personal politics to know that when you've alienated someone, or convinced them your credibility is low, or the like, it takes both apologies and active repair work to fix the damage done. I believe we have done extraordinary damage to America's reputation and standing in the last two years or so, and that we need to address that aggressively. But I wouldn't want to make a litmus test out of whether France or Germany agrees to send troops to Iraq. Domestic political pressures in both those countries probably preclude that from happening under any forseeable circumstances.


Bowie, Md.: Re: Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Armitage, Rice, Hadley

Yeah, they're smart guys and gals. Isn't this an almost perfect analogy to "the best and the brightest" who brought us, among other things, the Bay of Pigs.

The Kennedy Administration is today remembered for "groupthink" -- lack of intellectual BREADTH (not depth) because they all came from the same background and held the same assumptions. The Bush Group has been accused of "faith-based intelligence" which is pretty much the same thing -- an assumption that everyone in the world wants freedom, and the U.S. is everyone's paradigm for it.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. Not sure it's fair to blame the Kennedy crowd for the Bay of Pigs, an operation designed entirely on Ike's watch, but executed by Kennedy, to his everlasting regret. But the Best and the Brightest do deserve credit for Vietnam -- that was the title of David Halberstam's great book on how they did it.


Little Rock, Ark.: Who principally and evidently is the one [or cabal] that is to blame for the Iraq fiasco? Is it the Commander in Chief ? his Secretary of Defense? The Senate and Congress for approving -- without even the hint of adequate advice and consent]? And who can the citizenry hold accountable for the billions of wasted taxpayers monies and more importantly the death and maiming of Americans and Iraqis?

Robert G. Kaiser: Where I come from, the boss is responsible for his organization's mistakes. That doesn't mean he has to be tarred and feathered, or decapitated, but it does mean he has to show that he FEELS responsible and has done something to correct a problem.


Kingston, Jamaica: You say "foreign policy," yet it seems the State Department was brushed aside and the U.S.'s Iraq policy was instead formulated and conducted by (the civilian leadership of) the Pentagon and the Cheney-Halliburton-Texas-oilmen lobby. Should we be recalling with alarm Eisenhower's warning about the threat to American democracy posed by "the military-industrial complex?"

Robert G. Kaiser: "Foreign Policy" was part of the headline on my article, but the phrase wasn't one I used. (Editors write headlines, not reporters.) I think your description of the fate of the State Department in this case is accurate. I don't have any evidence that Haliburton or Texas oil men shaped our Iraq policy. Do you?

But the larger point is important: Ike's speech bears periodic re=reading. It was wise, and it was prescient. He, better than most, understood the temptations that could lead to a "military-industrial complex." If he were alive today, would he think that we have got one? I fear he would.


New Orleans, La.: How would you compare then prospects for stablegovernmentss in Iraq to those in Kosovo or Bosnia?

Robert G. Kaiser: Aren't you comparing an apple, an orange and a banana?


Laurel, Md.: OK, I'm guilty, too.

I never really thought there were WMDs.
I knew of nothing linking Saddam Hussein to 9/11.

I honestly thought, though, that Iraqis were an advanced society that would embrace democracy if offered. So I was in favor of establishing a "beacon of democracy" that would EVENTUALLY (talking decades here) advance the world's most societally backwards region.

Many conservatives are still arguing that successes in Iraq are suffering the "no one reports the planes that land safely" problem, compared with the latest insurgent bombing or prison abuse revelation. Is there a backdrop of successes there that just aren't on the front page?

Robert G. Kaiser: And apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

Sorry, I couldn't resist. Reopening some schools, paving some roads, getting the water to run and so on may constitute "success" in some literal way, but if the overall policy is going down the tubes, what's the difference? That's my fear. If we are left with no good options in Iraq--say, civil war, or indefinite occupation, or anarchy--who's going to care that the water is running?

Obviously, we're not yet in that disastrous situation. But how are we going to avoid it?


Philadelphia, Pa.: Zinni may be knows a lot about the warfare, but I prefer listening to Bernard Lewis on the strategic need for this war, than Zinni's
Kurds, having been protected for 12 or so years, were able to build a nascent democracy and a functioning free enterprise system. Why not Arabs, given time? You are wondering about short attention span of Americans. Wasn't it your newspaper, along with others, demanded to know when we will withdraw from Iraq even BEFORE the war started? It's you, who created these expectations and now complaining about them!;
Just before the liberation, when the Left was conduction "antiwar rallies", the BBC had a worldwide calling program to stop the war. Among all the chorus of "concerned protesters", there was a single call that came from Iraq ( and the only one able to get through!;), begging us to help them to get rid off a brutal dictator!; May 17th, current foreign minister of Iraq speaking in Jordan, mentioned about school opening, electricity restored, women participating in the political and economic life!; Why don't you report about these events?

Robert G. Kaiser: Attacks like these would be more effective if they were grounded in reality. What is the basis for this statement? "Wasn't it your newspaper, along with others, demanded to know when we will withdraw from Iraq even BEFORE the war started? It's you, who created these expectations and now complaining about them! " There is none. As many other correspondents today have pointed out, The Post editorial page was in fact a staunch supporter of the war.


Boston, Mass.: Mr. Kaiser, Keep up the good job you are doing. In reading the first 30 minutes of this segment it appears that you are personally takinga lott of heat and criticism from those who disagree with your article. I sense a feeling of anger in the tone of your writing. Those who've attacked you have called you a Monday morning quarterback, and are not engaged in the discussion. This strikes me as desperate and similar to the Bush Administration's intent to highlight Presidential speeches over the coming six weeks. When else in our history, can we say that the President plans to address the nation six times in the lead up to a handover of power to a yet-to-be-named group of leaders? This all strikes me as bizarre and unprecedented. FDR used his fireside chats to ease American's fears. This situation is similar, but emerges out of a plummeting in confidence, and ability to achieve success (The vision thing again?). The enemy in Iraq may be the people we tried to free in the first place, as well as any terrorists who have made it over its porous borders, and our President feels a need to speak to us a full year after we took over the keys to the place. Do you think this President is considering not running this Fall if things don't improve? And do you think the Administration plans to use Brahimi as a scapegoat if the June 30 interim governing authority fails to realize anything concrete and the whole place goes to pot?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for your support! Let me assure you I am feeling no anger. Indeed, for guys like me lucky enough to have a fabulous forum for sharing our views on big issues of great importance, nothing is better than vigorous feedback, including sharp disagreement. I love it!

But you give me a good opportunity to say something about the power of great journalism. I'll ask my colleagues to post links here to two powerful stories that ran in the Post last week, one from Iraq, one from Washington. Both describe the gathering pessimism in both capitals about the course of the war.

I consider stories like these really important examples of journalists doing their constitutional duty. These stories were not made up. They are not the result of some bias on the part of our colleagues who wrote them. They are REPORTING. They are written by smart, hard-working people who talk to sources by the score, who read, who think, and who are very good pulse-takers. I would bet my reputation on them both.

And they report the problems that so many of my critics today are having trouble facing up to. The war in Iraq is going badly. The many original rationales for it have not proven to be correct. We have now had to turn the whole thing over the an Algerian diplomat, Mr. Brahimi, to select a government we are morally committed to support with American lives for the indefinite future.

This is not what anyone hoped for--not war supporters, nor war critics. It is a sad situation for a great country. We will have a difficult time making it right.


washingtonpost.com: As Violence Deepens, So Does Pessimism, (Post, May 18)

U.S. Faces Growing Fears of Failure, (Post, May 19)


Freemansburg, Pa.: At present, which Iraqi leader offers the most hope for unifying this battle-scarred country?

Robert G. Kaiser: This will be the last question today. Thanks again to all who have posted. Once again I am reminded of the high quality of those who visit washingtonpost.com.

I think it is a good example of our dilemma that neither I, not Paul Bremmer, nor Donald Rumsfeld, nor anyone else in Washington or Baghdad that I know of can answer your question. No nationally popular leaders have emerged in Iraq; those who can claim followings can claim them only in some sub-sector of Iraqi society (the Shia, the Kurds or the Sunni).

I don't think we should he hoping for a knight on a handsome horse to save the situation.


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